Public safety reform, economic recovery in the wake of COVID and the accompanying public health concerns surrounding it, as well constituent services were the focus of a recent 6th Plymouth District candidates’ forum at the Plymouth Area Community Television cable access studio.
State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Pembroke, and challenger Republican Tatyana Semyrog faced off in the session moderated by PACTV Executive Director Julie Thompson. The broadcast touched on political divisiveness, the immediate pressing issues facing the state – including policing, legislation they would back to benefit constituents, committee preferences and what they have learned about each other.
“This will not be a debate per se, but rather an opportunity for the candidates to let voters know who they are and where they stand on certain issues,” Thompson said.
The candidates were introduced in alphabetical order and had three minutes for an introductory statement before Thompson began her questions on state and local issues.
Formatted in a similar fashion to the presidential debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29, responses to each question were followed by a point-counterpoint opportunity to ask questions of each other. Candidates had three minutes to make closing remarks.
There was no audience or campaign staff present in the studio.
“I really love my job,” said Cutler, who is now serving his fourth term. “I believe in public service. This has been certainly the most challenging, but also the most rewarding term that I’ve served because a lot of people need help.”
Noting his pride in the fact that Massachusetts leads the nation in education, health care, biotech, energy efficiency, marriage equality and veterans’ benefits, Cutler said there is still more work to be done, especially with the public health and economic challenges posed by COVID-19. He serves on the Ways and Means Committee, Telecommunications and Energy Committee and the Higher Education Committee as well as the House Chair of the Coastal Caucus and is leading an initiative on workforce development for persons with disabilities.
An inventor and entrepreneur, Semyrog is also a mother, a widow and cancer survivor.
“All these tragedies that happened to me truly made me a survivor and inspiration to many,” she said of losing her husband in a car crash four years ago as well as her battle against breast cancer. “My family also survived severe persecution in the former Soviet Union for many generations.”
She said an independent district such as the 6th Plymouth should have all political viewpoints represented in the State House.
On the political polarization in the state as well as the nation, Semyrog said it breaks her heart, but repeatedly characterized a July vote Cutler cast for police reform as defunding the police.
“It is painful to watch us being ripped apart — by the media, truly — that is, dividing us up into classes, labeling us certain names that are unfair and I am here to address that and say, ‘This has to stop,’” she said. Semyrog claimed she has been ostracized and criticized by Cutler’s supporters on social media. “If we’re going to say that everyone’s lives matter, then let’s include everyone, including our police, who are being marginalized right now — attacked, dishonored and mocked. That has to stop.”
Cutler said the situation is a tale of two cities with division in Washington, D.C., specifically the White House, with both parties contributing to it; and Boston, where the legislature is Democratic and Gov. Charlie Baker is Republican.
“And yet, we found a way to work together and to build consensus,” he said. “We don’t always agree on every issue, but we work together to try to solve problems. The nation could learn from what we’re doing in Massachusetts, where we have Democrats and Republicans working together to solve issues.”
On the regional level, Cutler said he has worked with Republican colleagues to provide paratransit ride services for the disabled, North River issues and 40B projects in Hanover, and worked with the Republican leader in the House on the Energy Save Act.
“Fundamentally, I believe, in politics this job should be about addition and not division,” Cutler said.
Semyrog replied that, in knocking on 5,500 doors across the district, she has heard residents say they feel “betrayed” and that his record is “lacking in bringing people together.” She did not offer specific examples, other than claiming his vote to defund police has divided the community.
Cutler countered that the chairman of the W-H School Committee, who is a lifelong Republican, supports him, as do GOP members of the Duxbury Planning Board and that people understand that he works across party aisles.
Asked to list three issues they see as most pressing in the state, Cutler termed his the “Three Es” — education, economic development and energy/climate issues.
“I’ve been fighting for school funding and changes in our school funding formula,” he said.
Special education funding and financial assistance to districts struggling with the challenges surrounding COVID-19 resulted in a pledge by Ways and Means that cities and towns would see no cuts to local aid.
Semyrog said her number one issue is public safety, economic recovery was also mentioned.
“I know my opponent doesn’t like to call it ‘defund the police,’ but really, [a bill passed in July] is a bill that will hurt our police officers by taking away their qualified immunity,” she said.
She said raising the gas tax at this time is also “despicable.”
“She’s certainly entitled to her own opinions on this, but she’s not entitled to her own facts,” Cutler responded. He said he voted for an additional revenue source dedicated to police training as well as other bills funding needs of local departments.
“There’s a broader issue at play here,” he said of national debates surrounding policing. “I would agree in one respect, I think our law enforcement does a fantastic job here. … I think there’s also a need to look at policing reform and accountability.”
He noted that Massachusetts is one of only four states lacking a licensing certification for police officers and the legislation sought to address that. Cutler said he does not favor defunding the police nor ending qualified immunity and is “disappointed that my positions are, frankly, being misconstrued.”
Semyrog said she has been unanimously endorsed by police unions in Pembroke and Hanson, as well as the Mass Cops union and asked if the vote wasn’t for defunding, why do police officers feel that it is.
“I feel this is a very important matter that you need to own,” she said.
On legislative goals to help constituents, Semyrog said the next two years must focus on economic recovery, vowing to introduce bills to help small business and expanding Chapter 70 funds for schools and to help first responders.
Cutler said he would continue to do just those things, as he said he has done since being elected to the seat, as well as fighting for local aid and leading on issues of climate, preventing abuse of the disabled and again stressed he supports the police and also has a string of union endorsements, as well as one representing nurses.
“Everything you’ve accomplished is your job,” Semyrog replied.
Cutler also said continuing to serve on Ways and Means, which works on crafting a state budget, remains his priority. He stressed that the committee, even amid COVID, has committed to hold harmless to any cuts in Chapter 70 and lottery aid, protecting local aid to cities and towns. He also hosted a Ways and Means hearing in the district for the first time.
Semyrog also said she has an eye on the Ways and Means Committee, asserting she would “do more.” She also has an eye on the Public Safety Committee and the Community Development and Small Businesses Committee. Cutler said those were good committees to aspire to and that he has served on the Community Development and Small Businesses Committee and has been endorsed by the chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
Semyrog said she knew nothing about Cutler before running, and her canvassing has led her to feel constituents want new representation.
Cutler said he does not know Semyrog well, but looks forward to get to know her better and was dismayed that she chose to take such a divisive position.
About the candidates
Cuter grew up in Duxbury and now lives in Hanson. The Skidmore College and Suffolk Law School graduate owns a small business in Hanson and is the former owner of Clipper Press, which published the Duxbury Clipper and Whitman-Hanson Express before those newspapers were sold in 2013 before he ran for office. He also earned a master’s degree in environmental policy from UMass, Dartmouth.
His previous governmental experience includes three years as a Selectman in Hull, four years on the Duxbury Planning Board and on that town’s Alternative Energy Committee for 10 years. He currently serves on civic or business associations in all three district communities.
Semyrog’s family emigrated to the United States when she was a little girl in 1988. She has seven siblings settling in Springfield to start a new life. Her family’s Christian faith made them a target for persecution in the USSR, she said, explaining that her grandfather served 28 years in a labor camp and two of his brothers were summarily executed for possessing bibles.
“I was reborn in this country,” she said.
She said she graduated with a degree in political science and has worked for a few members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.
To watch the complete broadcast visit: https://youtu.be/06kyACQvVcA.